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Doubanjiang: the chilli bean paste dreams are made of

Hello, umami.

Doubanjiang: the chilli bean paste dreams are made of

Doubanjiang. Where do I start? As one of my favourite staple pantry ingredients, this is one condiment I’m never too far away from. You’ve probably seen this gloopy chilli bean paste in many of my recipes – especially the Sichuan ones . But what exactly is it? It’s been called the ‘soul of Sichuan cuisine’ and not much happens in Sichuan cooking without it. What’s Sichuan cooking, I hear you ask? Fair question, because to ‘get’ doubanjiang, you really need to know something about Sichuanese cooking.

A bit about Sichuan cooking

Sichuan (sometimes spelled Szechuan or Szechwan, although these are outdated Romanisations) is a sprawling, fertile, land-locked province in southwest China. It has a unique cuisine, famous for using a huge variety of fresh ingredients, as well as some unique cooking techniques, bright and bold flavourings, and special condiments. One of the so-called Eight Great Chinese Cuisines, Sichuan dishes are wildly popular throughout China. And they’re mostly famous for being spicy.

Ginger, coriander, sesame oil, peanuts, Sichuan pepper, rice wine, black vinegar, chilli oil – these are typical of the punchy ingredients Sichuan cooks favour. Dishes there are not always hot… but when they are, they’re REALLY hot. This is mainly down to liberal use of dried or ground chilli, not fresh. And to doubanjiang.

What exactly IS doubanjiang?

Doubanjiang Chilli Bean Paste

Meaning ‘spicy bean sauce’, doubanjiang is a thick, reddish, spicy, deeply savoury, coarse and rather salty paste essential to Sichuan cooking. It’s used in famous regional dishes like mapo tofu, twice-cooked pork and hot pot. Confusingly, it’s sometimes romanised as ‘tobanjiang’ so watch for that when you buy.

Originally, doubanjiang came from a town called Pixian, near Chengdu, made using chilli, fermented broad beans, soy beans, salt and some flour to thicken. In Pixian, they still make it the traditional way, fermenting the paste in big pots under sunlight for three or more years, stirring it daily. Pixian doubanjiang uses locally sourced water and beans, plus a very specific type of chilli.

How and where do I buy doubanjiang?

There are lots of brands but when buying, look for ones labelled ‘Pixian’ and note that the more expensive ones have been fermented for longer than cheaper ones. Pixian doubanjiang will be properly aromatic as well as savoury-spicy, and texturally a bit lumpy. Generally it’s packaged in plastic screw-top jars. You should refrigerate your doubanjiang once it’s opened; it can turn mouldy so always use a scrupulously clean spoon to measure it out.

Look for doubanjiang that lists broad beans in the ingredients; there are other versions (notably from Taiwan) that use only soybeans and these are considered inferior. There’s also a brown, non-spicy doubanjiang often translated as ‘fermented black bean paste’, but it contains no chilli. You can tell the variety you want by the brick-red hue.

What substitute for doubanjiang can I use?

Doubanjiang is not the kind of thing you can easily make yourself due to the lengthy fermenting and aging processes it requires. With a complex set of spicy-earthy flavours, doubanjiang is also a hard thing to substitute in a recipe. However, if you really and truly can’t find it (it’s actually easily scored from Chinese grocers), you could use sambal oelek or sriracha mixed with dark miso in a ratio of half to half.

How do I use doubanjiang?

Doubanjiang Chilli Bean Paste

Look for specific Sichuan recipes that use doubanjiang; in Sichuan they love it not just for its punchy flavours, but for the lovely red colour it imparts when cooked. A spoonful in a stir-fry or through a batch of fried rice will really give your dish a kick in the spice pants. And, although unorthodox, you could also use it with black vinegar and some peanut oil as a dressing for salad, or as a drizzle over scrambled, poached, fried or boiled eggs.

Note that because it’s quite salty (a result of the fermentation process), there’s no need to also add loads of soy sauce to a dish where you use it. In fact in Sichuan, they don’t use quite as much soy sauce as elsewhere in China because of this.

Right. Now you know what doubanjiang is, let’s look at some recipes for unleashing its spicy deliciousness!

Ants Climbing a Tree

Ants Climbing a Tree

Here’s a Sichuan noodle classic that you will totally love, if you haven’t already tried my recipe. Light soy, dark soy, Shaoxing wine, bouncy vermicelli and… doubanjiang. It’s basically All The Good Things! And oh-so easy too.

Steamed Egg Custard and Spicy Pork

Steamed Egg Custard and Spicy Pork

This Chinese-style steamed egg custard, loaded with chilli-amped pork, is the spicy dinner you never knew you needed. Smooth, creamy and darned satisfying, pair it with steamed rice and stir-fried Asian greens for an easy dinner, or serve it as-is, for a fiery start to the day.

Hot & Numbing Sichuan Eggplant

Hot & Numbing Sichuan Eggplant

Phwaor – look at that lovely, spicy deep red slick of chilli oil! This Sichuan classic sure packs a punch with its hot, numbing, umami flavours. It’s eggplant, but maybe not as you know it, with doubanjiang taking it to a whole new place. Go there with it!

Slow-roasted Sichuan Sweet and Sour Pork

Slow-roasted Sichuan Sweet and Sour Pork

Pork belly nuggets? Spicy ones? Yeah, they’re a thing. Just cook and crisp up those succulent porky bites, then drizzle with a sweet-spicy Sichuan-inspired sauce. Yum.

Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

I know; normally this classic dish takes an age to make. But I cheat and you can too; just follow my recipe for your ticket to lush, spicy, noodle-y, beefy goodness, in a fraction of the usual time.

Asian Chili Bowl

Asian Chili Bowl

My Asian Chilli Bowl is not your usual take on a chilli, and yes, that means it’s controversial! But it does have all the things you’d expect – it’s spicy, beefy and sour cream-y – plus a few unexpected ingredients. Like doubanjiang, Shaoxing wine and Sichuan peppercorns.

More ingredient explainers, right here

Marion's Kitchen is for everyone who finds joy in flavour and happiness in every bite. Marion's Kitchen is for everyone who finds joy in flavour and happiness in every bite.

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